On Professionalism

Col Mike Wyly, of the Marines, has written a piece in Armed Forces Journal on the nature of Professionalism, using Boyd as the exemplar of the subject. The article is completely correct, and is worthy of reading by all military men.

One of my pet peeves regarding “Professionalism” is the supreme misunderstanding of what the term implies. On the eve of my first deployment in 2004, my detachment Officer-in-Charge, a Major, took the 43-Marine detachment aside and told us his expectations, which he said could be summarized on two words: “Be Professional.” Unstated were what his ideas of what professionalism entailed. To him, Professionalism meant keeping the appearance of a Marine, combined with a touch of CYA: Keep hair short, uniforms serviceable, be tactful, and do what you need to do to keep the detachment out of trouble.

This conception of Professionalism is wrong.

Professionalism is not something you admonish your detachment to BE on the eve of a deployment. Professionalism is something you DO. It is Professing a solemn vow to keep fidelity to the ideals of the occupation. Professing implies:

  • Continual study
  • Gaining and maintaining the respect of your peers
  • Policing your peers, and working to fix their shortcomings
  • Developing the next generation of practitioners of the profession
  • Holding superiors accountable
  • Upholding the Oaths and ethics of the profession
  • Ensuring a favorable view of the profession by the public

Professionalism does not have anything to do with haircuts, boot polishing, or even tact. Externalities, like personal appearance do matter, but only to the extent that it promotes or impedes your abilities as a Professional. For example, poor field hygiene can imperil the health of a unit, and therefore impede its combat effectiveness. This is contrary to military discipline, and is therefore not Professional. Personal appearance may enhance the elan of a combat unit, and therefore it could be a benefit to promote the appearance of your troops. However, personal appearance is not, in and of itself, the mark of a Professional.

It may be unpopular for today’s officer to say so, but I question the ability of many Second Lieutenants, Privates, and Lance Corporals to actually be “Professional.” This is not bad, as they are but juniors to the craft of war, and many of them will not measure up to the standards that Professionalism implies. Yet the Major’s admonishing to be professional fell on deaf ears, as most of the troops had no concept, or perhaps a mistaken concept, of what Professionalism is. Second Lieutenants and Lance Corporals ought to be treated as apprentices: willing, but unable, to keep the vows of the professional. With time, mentorship, and leadership, they may realize the extent of their responsibilities and will therefore undertake the duties required by their self-Professing of their vows.

Professionalism is deeper than appearance. It is the stuff of habit and deed. Its impetus is personal, and internally-driven.

The professionalism of the officers and NCOs, and Staff NCOs of the military is crucial to the safety of the Republic and the Constitution. Through our study, ethics, and the respect of our peers, we work to uphold the safety and honor of the Constitution in the domains of war and peace. Our craft as military professionals may bring untold pain to the Republic should we fail in our obligations.

Crossposted at Smitten Eagle.

15 thoughts on “On Professionalism”

  1. The “cost disease of the service sector” implies that it will be harder and harder to attract a professional workforce in any trade or profession, as time goes on. Immigration can reverse this for a generation or so, but eventually even that taps out as a sensible source of new labor.

    So a great post, and a critical one to think about.

    Good job.

  2. I agree with your posting, although I think the kind of professionalism you are talking about is attainable only for a select few individuals.

    Regarding the Major’s emphasis on appearances, I think this is a typical example of how people often confuse cause and effect. He thought the outward signal (looking and sounding good in uniform) was the cause of individual excellence while it was merely a superficial outcome of desirable underlying qualities (discipline, awareness, self-respect) which are part of the arsenal of qualities that give rise to excellence. Encouraging this array of habits goes far beyond making sure everyone “looks the part”.

    And indeed if bad outward appearances actually interfere with the effectiveness of a person, they seize being mere appearances. Special Forces wearing beards are effective enough though.

  3. I was first an enlisted in the 82nd Airborne Division. I thought of us as the best dressed corpses on the battlefield. We spent the largest amount of our time cleaning, waxing, buffing, scouring, pressing, ironing, starching, polishing and inspecting. It was boring, easy and within the cultural important. Out side of a gay bar, you never heard so often comments to the like, “You look…, looking good, and such.”.

    Then I went through the SF qualifications courses and over to 7th Group, that time still at Ft Bragg. Lumpy uniforms, low shine boots, hardly ever an inspection and always at a range, or out in the field, or taking or giving a course. I can remember the hairy eyeballs from 82nd Officers, and wistful looks and comments from the enlisted.

    In SF we were clean, our equipment in good order, and after that uniforms were an obvious time eater, known to be superficial, and a quite a bit fetish.

    I don’t know much else about the whole subject, but I know my female cousins with their hobby of gay popular Hunter/Jumper horse riding love for me to do a three-hour shine of their show boots. So, I got something out of the regular Army, and that’s nice.

  4. The old saying is ‘a unit ready for parade is not ready for the fight. A unit ready for the fight is not ready for parade.’ The surface appearance can be an indicator, much like the Giuliani broken window and trash metaphor. However, indicators are no substitute for sticking your nose in to see what the real situation is, or management by walking around. Lazy supervisors choose to scratch the surface and hide behind desks rather than do the work to properly gauge the situation. It’s easy, it’s quick. Just like penciling the Operations Readiness Reports. Amazing how those suddenly changed back in the early 90s when the units discovered they were going to the Gulf. Professionalism, what a concept.

    Militarism is the use, or misuse, of the particulars associated with the military to accomplish other than the function of military. When the appearance is used as an indicator requiring future inquiry it’s military function or effectiveness, then it has a military purpose. When the appearance becomes an end in and of itself, it becomes militaristic. I’ve seen a lot of smart spiffy dressed doormen through this world. Probably not very effective in a military situation. Dictators and tyrants probably can show you on a moments notice a whole brigade of similar doorman.

    Now there can be a fine line between esprit de corps which imbues appearance through group identification and unit cohesion, and the imposition of appearances that only give the managers and supervisors the illusion of such. A leader can tell the difference. A manager can not.

  5. Dan tdaxp-

    “The “cost disease of the service sector” implies that it will be harder and harder to attract a professional workforce in any trade or profession, as time goes on. Immigration can reverse this for a generation or so, but eventually even that taps out as a sensible source of new labor.”

    My post actually runs very much against this line of thinking. At least in the military, professionalism seems to be about growing into the role as you learn the ropes. I would guess that this would be true in all trades where a long apprenticeship is required. Therefore “recruiting” ready-made Professionals is really not something that’s done.

    Furthermore, I think that true professional trades are capable of regenerating their ethos. Sometimes this ethos is regenerated from within, as Boyd worked to do, and sometimes this regeneration is done with external pressure, as Wyly suggests is happening with pressure from the SecDef. I would go so far to suggest that with each generation the ethos must be regenerated as the new generations of practitioners undertake their obligations to society.

    Dan, I’m not familiar with what you speak of. My studies into the ethos of Professionalism are qualitative, not quantitative, and would appreciate examining your sources.

  6. The Stenson piece is a solid, short, normative look at Professionalism.

    Smitten Eagle’s Military Professionalism Reading List:

    The Soldier and the State, by Huntington,
    To Serve with Honor, by Gabriel
    The Challenge of Command, by Nye
    The Passion of Command, McCoy,
    Knight’s Cross, by Fraser,
    Boyd, by Coram,
    Once an Eagle, by Myrer
    Thought’s of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, by Stockdale

    Huntington speaks about the nature of the military profession, touching on the relationship of the officer to the society at large, and is a classic. Gabriel speaks to the necessity of a formalized code of ethics beyond the mere Oath of Office, and examines intensively the methods of maintaining professionalism through modern history. Nye writes about how to implement an individual study program relating to the arts and sciences of war. McCoy writes about how to maintain your professional ethos in a combat environment, where moral concerns relating to mission accomplishment are opposed by moral concerns for troop welfare. Fraser and Coram provide two case studies of actual warriors and the professional/moral/ethical decisions they make. Myrer, in Once and Eagle, idealized, through fiction, the a military professional for officers to emulate. Stockdale discusses, through this compilation of speeches, how his Stoic philosophy helped him through dire moral straits.

  7. In the private sector, professionalism is too often confused with the adoption and use of trendy methodologies. In business, that means the latest “strategic paradigm” or organizational thinking, regardless of whether it is justified by real research or whether it fits the situation. In education, the same thing only much worse.

    Andre Maurois suggested that fad-followers tend to be *intelligent men who are not in any way creative*…and that those who are not capable of formulating a system for themselves tend to throw themselves “voraciously” on those they come across, and to apply them more vigorously than would their inventors.

  8. Smitten,

    Thanks for your reply.

    The general welfare of a population can be approximated by L / C, the labor of a country divided by the capital of the country. Capital grows exponentially in modern economies (providing something like a yearly return of 3%, compounded), while labor grows slowly. Thus, over all, life in a modern economy keeps getting better and better — more and more capital per unit of labor, means more wealth for you, your wife, your children, and so on.

    It only becomes a problem when we want people to do something for us. Because they’re richer too. We find that we have use our capital to substitute for labor we can no longer afford — so we have washing machines instead of washer women, dishwashers instead of maids, etc.

    The same problem appears for the military. As there is less and less labor per unit of capital, we can either (a) substitute some of the labor for capital (a smaller army with better equipment) or (b) accept lower-quality labor (why not accept gang members?).

    In the short and medium term, we can get around this through immigrants using the military as passage to a green card, creating a foreign legion, using auxilleries, etc., but the basic logic in written in iron.

    I wasn’t advocating we encourage lower-quality labor, but it’s important we recognize what we hold dear (like Professionalism) when it comes time to make sacrifices.

  9. Dan-

    What you bring up is important–economic calculations are important to the health of a given profession, and level of capitalization greatly influences this.

    At the same time, armies that find it’s difficult to retain qualified personnel, like Captains [1], will probably find it’s difficult to retain them by merely raising salaries and benefits. Running the military like it’s a business shortchanges the nature of the job–people are not a mere commodity like in other realms. This doesn’t mean that we must pay more for those professionals–it means we might be able to get away with paying them less, if we listen to them more. Pay the professionals adequately, and treat them well, and they will stay. Pay them well, and treat them poorly, and they will leave.

    Of course, recruiting and retaining are different tasks, but economics affects both tasks in similar manners.

    In closing, Professing is an affair of the heart. The pocketbook has influence, as do intangibles like social prestige, quality of life, etc.

    [1] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2007/0712.tilghman.html

  10. “Professing is an affair of the heart.”

    The essence of a profession is that there is an ethic of service underlying it, especially the military, and even more especially its officers.

    As Col. John Cross put it:

    Late-nineteenth-century warfare never stopped,” Colonel Cross told me, “though it was masked for a time by the Cold War emphasis on atomic bombs. And in this type of warfare that you Americans must master, only two things count: the mystic dimension of service and the sanctity of an oath. It’s about the giving of one’s best when the audience is of the smallest.

    I quoted him in this post, and added:

    This sounds correct. We are retrogressing into an era more like the 19th Century in many ways, and politico-military tasks will be the responsibility of relatively small communities of long-service professionals devoting themselves to hard, dirty and thankless work over many decades in remote places.

    The industrial-era military of the 20th Century has to die off, to make way for something newer which is at its core something older. The soldiers who fought Gernonimo and Aguinaldo, and Shaka and the Mahdi, would recognize our new world, even if the era 1914-1989 would be incomprehensible to them.

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